Tracking College Responses to COVID-19

A quick note on that working paper: it now has the distinction of being the most-read public policy paper on the American Political Science Association’s pre-print (non-peer-reviewed) website. It has also been covered by the Chronicle of Higher education, Inside Higher Ed, and USA Today. We’re planning on adding some more analysis to that work in the coming weeks and fleshing it out a bit more. So, stay tuned!

For now, here is what we’ve found:

  • As the maps above show, colleges and universities (generally, a pretty slow-moving bunch) moved incredibly fast to transition to online-only education this Spring. Between March 6th, when Stanford and Touro College announced online transitions, to March 13th (literally a week later) nearly 60 percent of all four-year public and non-profit colleges and universities shut their doors and announced transitions to online instruction.
  • We don’t find many differences in campus closure dates based on campus infrastructure (like having a hospital or a large residential population).
  • Campuses, unsurprisingly, were far more likely to go online after states started declaring states of emergencies. This could be for two reasons. First, states (like New Jersey) mandated online instruction as part of their COVID-19 approaches. Second, the declarations may have driven home the severity of the crisis.
  • Lastly, we have some reason to believe that campuses were looking at their peer institutions for guidance. In times of uncertainty, people look to their friends and family. Colleges are no different. We call this tendency for colleges to make the same decisions and follow each-other’s lead “institutional isomorphism,” and we have some evidence that it ran wild during the month of March.

So, why does all this matter? Well, colleges and universities are beginning to plan for re-opening in the Fall of 2020. It isn’t particularly clear how they are making those decisions. While we have a number of public statements from boards of trust and presidents, they aren’t really drawing the curtain behind the scenes of their decision-making. We know they are scenario-planning, we just don’t know what issues have their full attention.

By looking at how colleges behaved in March, we can start to guess how they’ll behave in July, August, and September. While we should expect some changes in behavior (campus infrastructure may play a bigger role now that we know more information about the coronavirus), the basic approaches are unlikely to be all that different.

My team and I are beginning to extend our analysis. We’re writing what is called an “Event History Analysis” that will help us unpack how colleges behaved in March. We are also working with a number of really smart Data Scientists at Davidson to track and analyze the moves colleges and universities are already beginning to make for the Fall.

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